(second of two parts)
In the first part of this series, I discussed the importance of early childhood mental health in later development. I also emphasized that mental health, especially among early childhood learners, must be openly discussed and given much attention.
The second of my two-part series on early childhood mental health features my interview with my very good friend, Ms. Michelle Marie Manalastas-Malone, M.Ed of the Child Development Center at George Mason University. This took place a few weeks ago via Facebook Messenger phone patch.
Below is the full interview for everyone’s knowledge and information (the transcription below is edited for brevity):
Jet B. Ramos (JBR): Could you please explain to the general public what early childhood mental health is, especially for those who are parents or teachers who are about to start their careers, lalo na ‘yung mga hindi pa nagli-LET sa atin (especially those who have not taken their licensure examination here in the Philippines)?
Michelle Manalastas-Malone (MMM): Early childhood mental health is ‘yung foundation (the foundation) of all future development. So, examples of it are the adult relationship, learning about emotions, being able to express, manage, and experience a full range of emotions. And for the child to be able to feel confident, give them enough (room) to explore the environment and learn. Kasi maraming nagsasabi na, “mental health, ‘di ba pang-matanda ‘yon (Many say that mental health is only for older people)?” So, that’s one of the biggest myths because it’s a fact that our brains develop, 90% of our brains develop from ages zero to five. So, by five years old, our brain is almost fully developed. And so, it’s important for parents, teachers, and everybody interacting with children to know about mental health of children.
JBR: So, second question, Ate. What are the reasons why early childhood mental health is very important for educators?
MMM: Early childhood mental health is ‘yung foundation (the foundation) of all future development. So, examples of it are the adult relationship, learning about emotions, being able to express, manage, and experience a full range of emotions. And for the child to be able to feel confident, give them enough (room) to explore the environment and learn. Kasi maraming nagsasabi na, “mental health, ‘di ba pang-matanda ‘yon (Many say that mental health is only for older people)?” So, that’s one of the biggest myths because it’s a fact that our brains develop, 90% of our brains develop from ages zero to five. So, by five years old, our brain is almost fully developed. And so, it’s important for parents, teachers, and everybody interacting with children to know about the importance of mental health in children.
JBR: What are the myths that surround early childhood mental health in education apart from what you said?
MMM: Well, they (people) say that because when you say mental health, people keep thinking (that) you are luka-luka (crazy) or crazy or depression or anxiety. Stuff like that. And because it (any mental health problem) cannot be assessed in little children like infants and toddlers, people think that it doesn’t exist. But it does because trauma can start from infancy. It just looks different and it can’t be formally assessed.
JBR: Why can’t it (any mental health problem) be formally assessed, such as ‘yung (the) trauma among infants and toddlers?
MMM: Because there’s no scientific way to assess infants’ trauma because the babies are just beginning (to develop). If there’s no consistency, it’s because they’re still just learning and still just growing, so it’s hard to assess. There’s no scientific or medical assessment for emotional and social trauma for infants and toddlers and little children. There is no assessment yet, that’s why.
JBR: Is it true that developmental disorders are linked to emotional and mental health among children?
MMM: Yeah. That is a fact. In fact, it’s because in infancy and early childhood mental health, it’s the foundation of all future developments, not just depression. It’s also the foundation of whether or not a child will do well academically. It also includes all other developments, even physical development. Some children manifest stress and anxiety, specifically like a lot of stomach aches and headaches, and it’s misdiagnosed as migraine and something (else that is a) major (medical problem), but it can cause one to get sicker than they really are because they can’t handle their emotions and they don’t know how to express themselves.
JBR: Thank you for that. Why do you think early childhood mental health is seemingly neglected even in the educational setting especially in the Philippines?
MMM: I think that is a common thing for parents to want their child to succeed and it is usually based on good grades and academic learning. There is not a lot of research out there showcasing mindfulness, self-care, and others. Mental health was taboo or the longest time and it was not too long ago that seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist was seen as very negative because it meant that one was crazy. So what more, this one, when it’s mental health of these little babies.
JBR: What are the factors that affect the mental health of someone in the early childhood stage?
MMM: I think it’s best to explain maybe, “How does one nurture the mental health of a child?” It’s easier to explain it that way. First, it is important for the parents to guide and encourage the child to express his feelings, especially crying. It is common to see parents and teachers telling crying children, “It is okay” or “Stop crying” instead of validating the child’s feelings. I even see people automatically say to a crying child, “Oh no, don’t cry” if they wanna comfort the child, but it can cause more harm than good. Instead of saying, “Oh no, stop crying”, just ask, “Why are you crying?” You can also say, “I can see that you are crying. Tell me about it.” That is validating their emotions. You may tell them, “Oh no, you’re crying. Maybe you are sad about something. What happened?” Ask and then give them the voice to explain their feelings. Know what is going on. That would be very, very helpful and that would teach children to know that emotions are valid and that it’s okay to have a different range of emotions instead of learning how to hide it or it’s bad to have emotions, which causes stress or anxiety when they get older. That’s one way to nurture and what you call active listening, to listen to the child not to respond but to understand. Give open-ended questions.
JBR: Apart from lack of validating emotions, what can be other factors that can affect children’s mental health?
MMM: When you deprive the child (of the opportunity to express one’s emotions). As a teacher, we have to model proper expression of emotions. We tend to hide our feelings from our children. “Oh no, I’m sad. Oh no, I have a problem. Let me go somewhere and fix it.” As an adult, you must tell your child your emotions. Narrate your emotions and not hide it so that you can model proper behavior and handling of emotions, which is a healthier way to process your feelings. Another important thing is for a child to prioritize relaxation time and a time to do productive things. It’s a tendency for us to allot time for school and work, but it’s also important for us and our children to allot time for relaxing and bonding. Giving importance to relaxation for the child by not bombarding him/her with so many activities helps him/her to reflect on things. It is taboo for us to tell the child how hard we work. We need to model doing things and resting. Taking care of ourselves makes us more productive.
JBR: As teachers, what are the best practices that we can actually do when it comes to nurturing and bolstering children’s mental health?
MMM: I think one of the great ways to make sure that you incorporate it (nurturing and bolstering children’s mental health) into your teaching practice or parenting is to see behavior as a window to help the child with what he/she needs, not something that he/she intentionally does. Like, the behaviour is the window to the needs. It is neither bad nor good, just an expression of a need that is unmet. Instead of getting mad or upset over a specific behavior, we need to see it as a mystery. “I wonder what is not being met. Let’s figure it out together.”
JBR: So that means you need to ferret out what needs to be known?
MMM: Yeah, you need to observe and get to know the child. Is the child “hangry” (hungry and angry)? Is the child tired? When a plant is not blooming, you do not blame the plant. Blame the environment and the soil. It’s not being watered. There’s no or too much sunlight. You never blame the child for his/her behavior. Look for the need and determine how to meet it together with the child.
JBR: Apart from that, what are other best practices that teachers actually do in terms of affirming children from zero to five when they make progress?
MMM: I think it’s important to find the good. Always try to find the good because when you believe in the child and you need to show that you actually believe in them and believe them. These are two different things. Believing them means that you affirm that it’s the child’s reality. Believing in them means that you give them opportunities to do good and do well instead of looking for bad behaviour or labelling things. You give them more opportunities to succeed.
JBR: What do we teachers do when we see a child lagging behind in his/her progress?
MMM: I think that in every development, it takes a team, a village to raise a child. It is important that we have a lot of observation and a lot of communication. It doesn’t just take teachers to determine why the child lags. It has to be everybody- parents, caregivers, the people around the children- to determine what is wrong and how to solve it. Because the interaction with children influences they begin to see themselves. For example, if a child is being neglected or abused, the child does not stop loving the abuser, such as parents, but they do stop loving themselves. You’re teaching the child to put stuff in their heads and the child mimics what he/she sees. A child tends to feel unloved and unworthy, thus thinking of himself/herself as a bad person when his/her parents think of him/her as such. Children automatically think of themselves what adults think of them. It’s important to show children their value even as infants.
JBR: What else can be done so that early childhood mental health can be strengthened both in the home and in school?
MMM: I think that definitely, mental health should be a part of counselling and checkups. There is actually a mental health consultation in which pediatricians and schools, policies, and judicial systems are linked to one another as part of raising children and upholding early childhood development and education and its impact on children. That’s how it can change how we view mental health. Just talking about it does a lot of wonders. And being accepting that there is such a thing as mental health starts as an infant. There is more research now. Early identification is important and it’s not just the environment and the child, but both. Significant mental health problems can occur in young children, so people need to be aware of that. Toxic stress can result from an early childhood (that is traumatic and bitter). It is essential to treat mental health problems of young children within the context of family, the home, the school, the community, and healthcare.
JBR: What else can be done so that children in the early childhood stage with traumas can be saved?
MMM: I think support for parents and teachers when they are stressed is important because caregivers’ mental health directly affects the child. The impairment in mental health is a result of the interaction between a child’s DNA and the exposure to the environment. We have to take care of the child and the child’s caregivers and the community to which the child belongs.
JBR: Thank you very much! We surely have a lot more to talk about!
MMM: My pleasure! Thank you, too!